By Daniel DePetris
From the moment he announced his candidacy for president of the United States, Donald Trump has made his opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) well known. No other agreement from the previous administration—not the Paris Climate Accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, not even the Affordable Care Act—ignited Trump’s anger as much as the Iranian nuclear deal, an accord he viewed as the shoddy product of lousy negotiators. So this week, he finally got rid of it.
As imperfect as the nuclear deal was, it constrained Iran’s nuclear program; lengthened Tehran’s nuclear breakout time from several months to a year; and provided the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with what the chief of the organization has called, “the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime.” Despite pleading from Britain, France, and Germany in the weeks leading up to the president’s decision, Trump is betting on his instinct that discarding the JCPOA and re-imposing U.S. secondary sanctions on Iran’s oil, energy, banking, and financial sectors will pressure Tehran into more concessions on its nuclear activity.
Now that the U.S. is out of the accord, what are Washington’s policy choices?
One option open to the Trump administration is laying the groundwork for a new negotiation with Tehran in pursuit of another agreement that encompasses not only the Iranian nuclear file, but other aspects of Iranian behavior that have caused such concern in the region.
After stating Washington’s departure from the JCPOA, President Trump suggested that a new round of negotiations is exactly what he was hoping to accomplish. No Iranian official, however, will view such an offer by the White House as sincere given the current context. In Iran’s perspective, it is simply a waste of time to discuss anything with an administration that walked away from a workable agreement that was being complied with. Whether or not this is a justified outlook is irrelevant—Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, already predisposed to mistrusting Washington’s intentions, will be even less willing to accept a diplomatic track with the U.S. on any major subject after Trump’s withdrawal.
Another possibility—and the least disruptive to the status-quo—is what can be termed JCPOA-lite, a scenario, whereby the European signatories to the agreement—in addition to China and Russia—come to an arrangement with Iran to uphold the agreement without Washington’s participation. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said that he is willing to consider this course of action, as long as the economic benefits and business activity that Tehran negotiated under the JCPOA continues to flow into the country.
Yet this option also does not seem likely: The White House has shown it is unwilling to facilitate Iranian transactions through the U.S. financial system.
The arm of the U.S. Treasury Department is long and strong. Unless the administration grants European firms exceptions to the secondary sanctions that are now back in place, European financial institutions transacting with the Iranian banking, shipping, oil, and energy sectors will be highly unlikely to run afoul of the Treasury Department’s regulations. While the European Union could implement blocking regulations to limit the economic fallout, European business will remain reticent to put their U.S. assets and earnings in jeopardy.
Without commerce from the West, the Iranian regime simply has no incentive to continue abiding by the terms of the JCPOA—and domestic hardliners, now empowered, will push for the resumption of Tehran’s enrichment program.
It is not a guarantee that Iran will restart its nuclear program, but if it does, the U.S. has two options for dealing with it: a containment strategy to deter Tehran’s ambitions, or the preventive use of military force to temporarily destroy Tehran’s capacity to enrich uranium (what’s known as “mowing the lawn”).
Before he was appointed National Security Advisor, John Bolton argued ferociously for the military option. In op-ed after op-ed and television appearance after television appearance, Bolton packaged the military cudgel as clean and antiseptic, where the benefits of an operation would outweigh any cost that may arise. Although Bolton has stated on the record that regime change in Iran is not an option the administration is considering, his decades-long advocacy for overthrowing the Iranian government should should not be whitewashed away. We must acknowledge just how counterproductive and irresponsible such a policy would be.
As the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Libya over the previous 16 years has demonstrated, U.S.-imposed regime change in the Middle East has proven to be an unqualified disaster for U.S. national security and regional stability. American military adventures in this region have been prefaced on dubious assumptions about what the U.S. could (or should seek to) achieve in societies we do not understand. Those assumptions led to extremely misguided judgments about the military and economic resources required to wage a war and complete misunderstandings about the chaos and turmoil that would be unleashed as a result.
Washington cannot pursue the same failed strategy and poor judgment that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq in Iran in 2018.
While the Iranian armed forces are no match for the U.S. military, this much is certain: It is inconceivable and intellectually dishonest to believe the Iranian regime will not respond in some way to a campaign of military strikes. If one is pining for a war that would engulf the entire region and make America’s bloody experience in Iraq look mild in comparison, then bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is the quickest way to light the match.
Iran is a regional power with deep pockets, a vast network of militia and terrorist groups scattering throughout the region, and a prevailing sense of patriotism and nationalism when its security is threatened. Iranian reprisals to U.S. military action would run the gambit from increased lethal support to proxy forces against U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan to the kicking out of IAEA inspectors. A retaliatory missile barrage against major population centers in Israel, to which the Israelis would inevitably and justifiable retaliate for, is not out of the question.
Far from being timid in the face of an American missile or air attack, the hardliners running Iran’s national security policy would restart the very nuclear program that was damaged or destroyed. If the U.S. policy objective is to persuade Iran that a nuclear weapon is unnecessary for its survival, bombing Tehran’s installations will only reaffirm the mullah’s determination to travel the same path as North Korea, a country that has been able to deter a U.S. military strike for more than a decade thanks in large part to an operational nuclear weapons capability.
Putting together a cohesive and comprehensive U.S. policy on Iran will not be an easy proposition, especially in a post-JCPOA world. But a preventive U.S. military strike should be out of the question—an attack would only be justified to preempt an actual or imminent attack on the United States or our interests.
President Trump is a man who takes his campaign promises very seriously. One of Trump’s biggest campaign promises, however, is his commitment to avoid dragging the United States into the kinds of expensive, unending, and inconclusive conflicts that drain the U.S. Treasury, put the nation in a colossal amount of debt, and turn an already troubled region into a cauldron of sectarianism and violence. After 16 years of constant combat, trillions of dollars in taxpayer funds spent, and tens of thousands of casualties, the American people were attracted to that message.
Now that he has withdrawn the U.S. from the JCPOA, President Trump must remember that most important of campaign promises: beware of pointless, endless regime change campaigns that degrade America’s economic wealth and strain America’s armed forces. To lose sight of this principle would be an extreme violation of the most significant commitment Trump made to the American people as a presidential candidate.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on May 14, 2018. Read more HERE.